She was skeptical of the recipe.

Heather Peterson had never really heard of black bean burgers before. And she wasn’t a big fan of one of the ingredients — red peppers.

Still, she was game for the dinner-time experiment. That’s one of the reasons she signed up for the Healthy Options at Home program — so her family could try new foods, practice cooking skills and share quality time in the kitchen.

So, Peterson and her 13-year-old daughter, Gabrielle Leihgeber, unpacked all the necessary ingredients provided by the program, got out the recipe card and clicked the online video which provided a step-by-step tutorial in how to make black bean burgers.

The verdict?

“We absolutely loved it. We will definitely be making that on a regular basis,” Peterson said. “And I keep raving about it, too. I keep telling everyone at work about it, telling them they’ve got to try these black bean burgers. They’re amazing and so easy to make.”

That’s the goal of Healthy Options at Home, a program of the Independent Health Foundation, which just completed its first session in Lockport.

“We want families to learn that healthy cooking isn’t hard, that you can do it on a budget and that it can be easy,” said Brianna Wallenhorst, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with the Independent Health Foundation. “These are recipes and skills they can use for a lifetime.”

The program began in 2020 as way for families to continue to explore healthy eating options during the pandemic in communities in Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and Lackawanna.

In April, the Independent Health Foundation brought the program to Lockport through Lockport City School District. Partnering with SNAP-Ed NY and the school district’s food supplier, Aramark, the program was able to test a new model — instead of having weekly meal kits delivered to homes, the kits would be picked up at the Family Empowerment Center (inside Cornerstone CFCU Arena), allowing families an opportunity to connect with a wider range of services.

“We invited everyone in the school district with children under 18 to register for the program and it filled up in 24 hours,” Wallenhorst said. “It was the quickest we’ve seen this program take off. Our goal was 50 families but by the time I looked after we launched registration, we had 58 signed up. People were really excited.”

Those who registered for the program received a starter kitchen kit with cooking essentials including a spatula, mixing bowl, sauce pot with a lid, a spice kit and kid-friendly kitchen knives so the whole family would be able to safely join in meal preparation.

Each week, participating families picked up their meal kits, which included all the ingredients for the featured meal, a recipe card and a shopping list with access to online cooking demonstrations from local chefs to take participants through the recipe, step by step.

All the recipes met the Independent Health Foundation’s healthy options guidelines for good nutrition, including calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium. They also were easy to prepare, containing 10 or fewer ingredients, and budget friendly. Recipe cards and shopping list broke down the cost, with meals ranging from $12 to $15 while utilizing shelf-stable pantry items and fresh produce.

“Changing eating habits is hard,” said Heather Scharping, assistant director of health and wellness at Lockport schools. “Even with the best of intentions, ditching unhealthy food for a healthy eating routine, especially foods that children would like to eat, is a challenge. The time it takes, money costs, and often the lack of nutritional education for families to meal plan can lead them to rely on fast food or prepackaged foods that are easily available.

“Healthy Options at Home addressed all those challenges. This program not only gives families an opportunity to have food on the table but brings them together as a family one night a week to spend quality time together.”

For Peterson, the combination of time with her daughter and the ability to teach her healthy cooking skills has been a highlight of the program.

“My daughter isn’t going to be a little chef, but she’s absorbing it and learning how to do things on her own,” Peterson said. “We’re enjoying the time we get to spend together and we’re learning about fruits and vegetables we haven’t really had experience with. I mean, this last meal we’re making will be the first time I’m going to hold an avocado in my hand. No lie. That’s brand new for me and to be able to teach that to my daughter so she can learn healthy eating while she’s young is awesome.”

For more information on the Healthy Options at Home program, and to check out past recipes, visit the website at healthyoptionsbuffalo.com/hop-at-home.

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